Gangster Squad is a fascinating movie, but not in the way its makers probably intended. Director Ruben Fleischer and writer Will Beall, working from Paul Lieberman’s history Gangster Squad: Covert Cops, the Mob, and the Battle for Los Angeles, have created something that has the look and approximate feel of a gangster picture set in the seamy post-war Los Angeles of the late 1940s. It has the hats, the cars, the slang, the music. It’s even got characters based on real people, like criminal kingpin Mickey Cohen. But the movie itself is a shell game, a hollow, by-the-numbers re-creation of every other mid-century crime story you’ve ever seen. The dialogue, characters, and beats have been pulled from film history itself, making the movie’s ultimate reference point not a real-life conflict between good and evil but the stylized version we’re used to seeing onscreen. Gangster Squad is a movie born of movies, a story cobbled together from dozens of others that never makes a convincing case for its own existence. It’s almost hypnotic to watch it and realize you’re seeing a masterful con job, a movie that’s almost stunning in its lack of originality or depth or power. It’s recycled recycled content. It’s the movie someone in a movie would watch.
It’s also hopelessly tied to 2012, however much it might wish to feel epic and timeless. A great deal of this has to do with Fleischer’s decision to switch between conventional film for most of the action and digital photography for major shootouts or battle scenes, which lends the confrontations a goofy, slick look that isn’t helped out by the cartoony blood or weak CG effects. (I never thought it was possible to make a guy getting pulled apart by a car look dull, but it is.) The film has a dry, dull look that feels every bit a fabrication, as if the stars are having an elaborate costume party or staged re-enactment and not trying to breathe life into a story bigger than themselves. Fleisher favors close-ups of sweaty action that randomly switch to slow-motion, a la Zack Snyder, while Beall’s script relies on banter and generic phrases pulled from quote books. My favorite was one cop’s emphatic reasoning that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” which is such a bland filler phrase no one can remember where it came from.
Set in 1949, the film follows the rivalry between Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who’s using the drug and prostitute rackets to set himself up as the king of L.A.’s underworld, and a police task force led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), a steely do-gooder who undergoes no emotional changes over the course of the film and who might as well be made out of cardboard. O’Mara is tasked by Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) with cleaning up the city’s mob problem, so he builds a squad consisting of Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) and Detectives Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), Navidad Ramirez (Michael Peña), and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick). This process is as rote as you’d imagine, with each man playing broad roles far beneath their considerable talents. (It’s especially unfortunate to see Peña all but wasted after he was such a stellar cop in last year’s End of Watch.) The characters aren’t so much mapped onto archetypes as they are onto recognizable people from other movies, notably The Untouchables, with Ribisi substituted for Charles Martin Smith and Peña for Andy Garcia, and L.A. Confidential, with Brolin for Russell Crowe and Gosling for a less interesting Guy Pearce. Additionally, Beall’s by-the-faded-numbers screenplay is so concerned with standard tropes that it often forgets to make the action match the words: at one point, Keeler complains to O’Mara that he can’t even tell the difference between their squad and Cohen’s thugs, even though the cops have done nothing but bust brothels, dispose of drugs, and basically act the way they’re supposed to. They haven’t killed any civilians or anything, and it’s not like one of them flipped out and got extra heinous on a bust so that we could all take note of the warning sign. But it’s the kind of cheap beat that’s supposed to happen around the halfway point, so it does, with little regard for motivation or reason.
The thing is, those beats can work, if they’re given the right set-up. L.A. Confidential, which covers most of the same narrative ground as this film, hits its mark with style even while relying on some classic tropes (the crooked Irish chief, the rogue noble badge, etc.). But films like that work because the makers believably remove the distance between themselves and their subjects: for those two or so hours, they believe in what they’re saying, and they sell you on that belief, and you subsequently buy into the film. Fleischer, though, never quite feels committed. Maybe it’s because his first two features were genre-blending send-ups of their respective predecessors: Zombieland was an action-comedy about the end of the world, and 30 Minutes or Less was a riff on conventional thrillers. Gangster Squad isn’t that movie, though, or at least it doesn’t feel like it wants to be. It’s got moments of levity, but ultimately it’s intended to be a dramatic account of good vs. evil, and of the internal battles we all wage as we try to figure out how far we’re willing to go to do the right thing. Fleischer waffles on this, though. He’s got talent — Zombieland was hilarious — but he never quite manages to sell the drama here, or make us believe he cares.
The cast isn’t much support, either. Brolin’s woodenness makes him precisely the wrong fit for O’Mara. You never get the feeling that there’s anything happening behind his eyes. Brolin’s fantastic at roles that require him to bottle up his feelings while he backs into a corner, like the panicky Dan White of Milk or the desperate Llewelyn Moss of No Country for Old Men. Here, though, he comes across as too single-minded in his dedication to pursuing Cohen for his softer moments to ring true. His declarations of friendship sound forced, and there’s zero chemistry between him and Mireille Enos, acting her ass off as John’s worried wife and not getting much in return. Gosling, meanwhile, speaks in a higher register than normal, and Penn tries to chew the walls while emoting through heavy prosthetics. Emma Stone, whose hallmarks are wit and humor and style, might as well be part of the scenery. She plays Grace Faraday, who’s quasi-dating Cohen when she starts going out with Wooters, and her character never feels like anything besides a physical place-holder for plot points.
Gangster Squad is, in a lot of ways, a train wreck, but I wasn’t kidding when I said it was fascinating. I found myself especially compelled by a massive Chinatown shootout that’s supposed to mark a turning point in the narrative but instead feels the same as every other action sequence in the film, right down to the awkward direction and geographically blind staging. This is the sequence that replaced the one originally set in a movie theater, which featured criminals shooting through a screen and into a crowd in a bold if logistically questionable attempt to kill the cops on their trail. (You can see it around the 2:00 mark here.) That bit was excised after last summer’s theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, but the one that replaced it is similarly violent: people are shot, a few civilians get taken out with a car bomb, etc. Not to mention the fact that the rest of the movie features mass shootings, some stabbings, and one guy getting killed by a drill to the face. The Chinatown sequence isn’t any different, it just lets us pretend it is, which is Gangster Squad’s whole problem. It feels processed and focus-grouped to death, the result of a thousand people with no conviction singing a chorus of apathy. It is, by its own design, a movie devoid of belief in anything other than the safest plan, the most well-trodden road, the least rewarding story. It’s everything you’ve ever seen, and you’ll forget it the moment it ends, if not sooner.